Dana Safa Bernardino
On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Nick Wallace, Winner of Chopped (Season 34),Top Chef Contestant (Season 19), list of “Best Chefs in America”, 2020 Best Chef in Mississippi, founder of Nick Wallace Culinary, and founder of Creativity Kitchen, a non-profit that works with public schools to help provide better tasting and healthier foods to students that attend these schools.
Nick works in one of the most high pressure fields in the world; a place where mentorship, teamwork, process-oriented hard work, and demands of the highest quality are needed: the professional kitchen.
His story on building an experienced, hardworking, and compassionate team that impacts his community is one we can all take value from, especially during a time when hospitality workers are feeling disconnected and abandoned more than ever.
On this episode of Bring It In season four, Chef Nick Wallace sat down with Sam and discussed caring for your employees, the importance of practice and communication, and the stigmas in the culinary industry.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
Below are some of the insights Chef Wallace shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: Chef, I guess for, for backdrop before I jump in, I got a bunch of questions here. Before I do that, do you mind giving everybody just a quick background on yourself?
Nick: Yeah, no problem. Well, my name is Nick Wallace. I used to be known as Chef Nick Wallace throughout my career. I wanted to take the chef off because my work really just involved, not just focusing on that dinner plate, but focusing on my community, what surrounds me, and just the betterment of the food industry in a way, and partnerships.
So I started, I’m born and raised from Everest, Mississippi, which is about 20 miles west of Jackson. And I grew up on a farm, so it was strictly homesteading. My mom moved me and my sister to Jackson when I was 11 years old. I always knew that I was good with cooking cuz I’ve been cooking in the kitchen with my grandmother since I was five, six years old. I used to make scratch biscuits and preserves and jams and jellies before I was even 10 years old, and knew how to harvest crops and deal with the animals and get the eggs from the chickens, all that kind of stuff. So coming to Jackson was a huge transition because it was a bigger place, it wasn’t rural no more, and I wanted to get into the culinary industry. So I did, I got into the culinary industry when I was 16 years old. Started working at a Mexican restaurant washing dishes for about a year and a half. Then I went to prep cook, and then it sped up from there. After leaving there about four years, I went and started kind of staging and working at about five of the restaurants.
I was lucky to have a lot of great people in my life to point me in the right direction because back then, and I’m sure it’s still going on now, but back then, the restaurant industry was so full of alcohol, sexual abuse, that kind of stuff. And I guess one of my ex teachers saw something in me because she was telling me to go to the hotel industry.
So I started working for Marriott when I was 20. And I was always good with math and everything. There it’s all about numbers. And I became exec chef in a year, so I was 21. I was the exec chef over Marriott doing about 8 million in food a year, and I had a brigade system of about 60 people, so it taught me a lot.
I was with Marriott for about 10 years. Within those 10 years I was a corporate chef as well. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska for about two years. Worked with Marriott. After that I did about six years with Hilton Group. That was super fun as well. And then after that I started really focusing on who I wanted to be.
Then I noticed that it wasn’t a whole lot of chefs of color in the state of Mississippi that was actually out in that forefront. So I began to be an executive chef, a culinary curator for the Mississippi Museum of Art. So I wanted to do something fun cause I get bored easily. So that’s kind of good as being a chef.
Started working for the museum, planted a garden for the kids, started having so much fun, and from there I started noticing a lot of Bobby Flays on tv, all this stuff there, man. And I jumped on the Food Network in 2013. I went to Cutthroat Kitchen in Hollywood with Alton Brown and I placed second.
I didn’t know what the impact was gonna be when I came back to my community. So I was licking my wounds because I placed second. I felt like at that beginning time I felt like a loser in a way. And when I got back to my state from the show and they saw the show, it was just like, Man, all these kids going into the grocery store and going to these stores and people coming to the restaurant I was working at would never be the same anymore.
They was supportive of me. That actually fueled me to do about four James Beard dinners in New York, all Mississippi themed. I took farmers up there from Mississippi. I took other chefs from Mississippi all to support the mission. And from that point on, I did about four more Food Network shows, even Food Network Canada as well. I won a few of those, which was great cuz it was really good for my ego and my passion. I think I deserved it at that point. And then after that I began to get even a little bit more strong when it came down to wanting to open my own business. So I opened my own business up about seven years ago, and I wanted to really impact the future of food as far as how I saw it.
So when I did that, it was something I wish I had done a long time ago. Because the reaction from everything else was like such a beautiful thing because of the community, I don’t even market much in these surrounding areas because people just support, and probably because I’m a chef of color and they haven’t seen that throughout Mississippi.
So I started a nonprofit too called Creativity Kitchen. I started getting into the public schools with Jackson Public Schools, and I did that all the way up until the pandemic. And I was doing selfless things like going to the shelters you know, doing water drives when Jackson was outta water. You know, I was there for the community, and a lot of my reward money that I was getting from these shows, I was putting it back into my community.
I was doing things for the community because I have built up a brand that’s strong enough that I think it’s very rewarding that I can sit back and do things for people or mentor people or guide them or get them into the workforce and really train them in a very authentic way. Honestly, when Top Chef came, I was honestly done with competing as far as in my mind and Top Chef came.
It was just such a blessing in disguise and I thought about it cause I never watched the whole full season of Top Chef. So when I went on Top Chef, I only watched about four episodes. And I knew it was gonna be huge, but it was one of those things that I just left any guilt or anything else at the airport, and I went and I said that I’m gonna do my best and that’s what it’s gonna be.
So going up against 14 other chefs from across the world was pretty amazing because now I seen all those years that I explained to you, you ball that up into a human being. You know, I’m confident, I’m well prepared. I am respectful. I know who is watching me and I know what the next generation needs to be or who they need to be looking at. So that’s who I am. And the reaction was pretty powerful. And honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop TV shows because before I was saying that I was done with it, but you know, now I am really honestly trying to be a model of that on the scene and on TV because I think the world needs it.
And they never had anybody that was a Mississippi resident that was on Top Chef. So I was the first, which I’d have been the first to do a whole lot. I actually have two permanent exhibits in a museum here, and I thought that you had to be dead to be featured in a museum. So it’s pretty awesome because it’s really rewarding that the state really rewards me in so many ways throughout all my work.
So now I just try to pay it forward, and I’m really pumping it up into the restaurant industry now. So I have two locations now and I’ll have two more within the next four months from now. And because I wanna make drive-through cool. I want to be able to do drive-through fast food restaurants, still cook the farm to table way, and that’s one of the things I’ve always wanted to do. And that’s what it’s gonna open up soon in about five weeks.
Sam: Very cool. I’m gonna ask, what’s the best part about being a chef, but I’m gonna maybe leave it open to what’s the best part about what you do, given you’ve done so much, you’ve done every kind of every role across a restaurant. What is the best part of it?
Nick: Mm-hmm. The best? I think the best part about being a chef, being in the food industry now is being a role model. I’m almost 44 years old, so for me it’s a little different because I’m not seeking fame or notoriety. I have about 26 awards on my wall at home. So I’m not seeking those things.
I’m not saying I don’t want no more. But right now in my life, I think because of the way my family is structured, one of the things I realized a while ago was my family’s tree. So, the men in my family don’t live that long. So right now I’m almost 44 years old and I’m the elder. I lost my dad, lost all my uncles. I don’t have no grandfathers. It’s me. So I was the first one to buy a home seven years ago, but that was within 60 years. I was the first one to open up a business within 60 years. So for me, I’m more focused on that and the structure as far as how things can kind of be standalone more than anything. So I think in food, for me, it’s really being a role model because I’m not just touching myself.
Like I have a partnership with Hope Credit Union, which throughout all the other partnerships I got, Hope Credit Union is super genuine to me because they’re a black owned bank institution. But the part that I like is that they make things easier to buy homes, get a car, or get business loans, and they teach you and guide you throughout the way.
So I’m a brand ambassador for them, so a majority of my staff have homes. They’re first time home home buyers. So now I’m not just giving these people a job and we’re cranking it out every day. I’m changing their livelihoods. And what is that gonna do for the people that’s connected to them? So to me, food is so, so many different connectors that gross your life in so many ways because now one thing I just did for this one person is gonna connect so many other peoples through life.
Sam: Obviously your heart is in the right place. I want to throw something at you. Data shows that one in two Americans today have a job that’s considered a bad job, which pays them below the poverty line. A $400 parking ticket could put them into poverty, that an overwhelming percentage of those workers are in a service sector job.
And I just got back from a few restaurant conferences where I look at stages that a lot of the people on the stage all look the same and they’re saying things like, workers are unskilled, workers are lazy, they don’t show up on time, and it feels like the finger is pointed very much at the frontline worker, and I’m gonna say restaurants for a moment, it happens in every industry. What do you have to say to that?
Nick: I think that is definitely the case of how things have been, and I’m sure it’s still going. So for me, my grandfather has always had a saying that whenever he had an MO to die, if you leave him there, they stink from the head down. I think I take unskilled workers to be on the team. I take people that have been financing all their life and I have one that’s a sous chef now. Never cooked a day in his life, but he’s been with me for four years.
So I think at the end of the day, if you want to call yourself a leader, I think the boss thing needs to go. I think bosses create stigmas that really hurt other people’s lives. But just like I told you about the Hope Credit Union thing, you have to care what goes on in their life. You really do. And you have to care about their mindset too, of where they want to go. And some things you may have to teach ’em. Some things you may have to learn.
So I think when you care about a person, because if you had somebody working for you for five years, I think you should care about them. But if their life is no better than when they were working for you the first three months versus five years, I mean, who is the mirror pointed at? You know? But I honestly think we are always gonna have a workforce issue, but our training has to be top notch.
And that goes from the orientation background to the interview that goes into that. And you really want to know people’s thought processes about how they see their own lives and where they want to be, because at the end of the day, my name might be on everything, but these people are wearing my chef coats, my t-shirts, they’re doing it all. So they’re representing a brand, but they’re still representing themselves at the end of the day. So I care. Anyone in my team can call me and have a flat tire. Somebody’s gonna act on it if they need help. So we have to have that family atmosphere, but we have to care about the individual.
Sam: You said that you’re 45, you’re the elder, there’s a lot of 17, 18, 20, 22 year old young people coming into the industry. What advice do you have for them as they enter environments that may not be as inclusive or caring or investing in training as you? What advice do you have for them?
Nick: Yeah, that’s definitely a tricky one because sometimes you get forced into situations that you have no other way to go, and that is the only one. I think we can be a part of change as well but, it’s a whole lot of things. I have been in those environments, so I’m gonna put myself in that place.
So I’ve been in those environments that I honestly screwed up many, many times when I was 17, 18, 19 years old that involved a whole lot of things that, honestly, that I was getting from my peers, from my boss at the time. And it wasn’t nothing that was good for me, but I didn’t realize that they didn’t care about if I got my rent paid, they didn’t care about insurance, health insurance.
They didn’t care about that. But honestly, at that time, I didn’t care about it either because I was missing some parenting going up. So it’s no excuses to my parents, but it was a whole lot of things that I didn’t have that would honestly better fit me out there into the world. So I think having good habits from home kind of carries you a long way, even if you do get into bad situations. You can’t carry them all just because you may want to. Cuz that’s really honestly an easy thing to do because when my other friends that were cooking started drinking at night, I started drinking too. So you really honestly have to have some really good habits that you can take into those environments, and restaurants have some of the worst. We have a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, all that. We have a lot going into the restaurant industries. And that’s the reason why I wanted to be standalone, that I can actually be that leader that can represent change as well.
Sam: I’d love to make it down to Mississippi, I’m from Miami. I’d love to make it to Mississippi. I live in Newark, New Jersey now, and my wife and I went to a restaurant in the area last week actually, where we got lucky enough to sit sort of right at the counter. And this was a small restaurant and watching the line work for brunch. And it was interesting to watch from the head chef to the sous chef to someone on the line to the expeditor, this unspoken, they were like in flow. I couldn’t even explain it. I haven’t been in that position. But you’re just sitting there as a guest watching. And what does it take as a leader? Cause you said a second ago, we gotta get away from being a boss. What does it take to create an environment where there’s that type of flow and teamwork and camaraderie and culture? And I ask this because as you know, the restaurant space has a really high turnover, a lot of environments struggling with retaining workers. What does it take, in your opinion, how do you make that work at a level that creates an environment where a guest walks out and is like, ‘wow’?
Nick: Well, first thing is you gotta have fun. And I always look at the brigade system as far as lines, almost like an orchestra. You know, doing some of those things as team outings and things like that is good. Go to a ball game, go to a football game, like look at some of those things and talk about that afterwards. Honestly, the team is not gonna win unless everybody works together. Regardless of the center is seven feet tall and the point guard being only five feet, it still doesn’t matter, because everybody has their strengths.
So the one thing that I thought was very positive, I used to have this chef that would pump you up for being good at certain things. I was good at not using my hands for things. I always used tongs. I had a towel in my left hand. I always had tongsin my right hand. So no matter if you put me on fry or saute or salads, that’s my setup. And I was quick at it. I was in harmony, but I only felt that way because my chef at the time was telling me I was so good at it. So at that point there, I started believing and I started feeling good about it. And then honestly, people started noticing me and honestly, it was like a dance at that point.
But he was doing everybody else like that. So, and at that point, we used to set things up like acting. So he used to say all the time, it’s just like acting. The reason why Nicholas Cage is so good at what he does do is because they practice and they act. They act this thing, he was like, some of those best moments that he had when he had that Shelby Mustang, they were doing those things over and over again until you got it right.
So we used to do that without even cooking food. So we used to play like we’re dropping baskets. You’ll have one person, the only one that talks, nobody else can talk, you know? Then we had other things that we tapped or we hit around and hit twice when things were up, just so we can keep the kitchen quiet and we can have little knocks at times just to see if we could do it.
So we will put things up, and another thing is communication. So if you are on somebody’s back or on the side or on their right or the left, always talk to people because we don’t have eyes in the back of our head, but you almost do once you communicate with people. So you almost could be blind walking down the street because I got somebody that I trust right there. He’s not gonna let me fall. So it’s that same system, and I’m telling you, this is the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen.
Sam: That’s awesome. Nick, I appreciate you taking time. I have one final question for you. A lot of what you’re talking about is we’re talking about the workforce, talking about the future of work. What’s your hope for the future of work?
Nick: My hope for the future of work is everybody getting accepted. And I say that because I’ve been in this industry for 20, 25 years, and I got into a bad depression as I was coming up because I saw so many of my peers and everybody getting all these James Beard awards and getting all this recognition, and I was doing some of the same work, and everybody that I was noticing, everybody I was taking pictures with, I’m the only one of color. And at a certain point, I just didn’t think I was good enough. I don’t care what I did.
So that was one of the reasons why I took TV, because then I got my own voice and I don’t have to have all these people holding me back or maybe not putting my name in a pot to get accepted. Because at this point right now, I got all my friends that’s in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, they are just blown away that I’ve never had a James Beard nomination of no sort.
I have been doing nonprofit work. I’ve maintained national partnerships for 12 years of my life. So my business now, I don’t even pay myself through my business. My payroll is my partnerships. So all of my money goes back into my business and goes into rewarding my staff for their birthdays, putting new equipment in, insurance, which is out the roof. I do things like that. So, I’ll stay visible in that sense because it’s so rewarding, and then I’ll make sure that I can guarantee that my people are gonna have a job as long as they want a job. So, I just think those kinds of things in life are so rewarding.
So at one point I just said, forget it all. I had to drop it and leave it out there and say, that’s not gonna be my stigma anymore. So for the next generations that’s coming, I just think everybody needs to be accepted. It shouldn’t be about the color of your skin, or your age, or any of that. In Mississippi too, you could look back off of 20 years. Look at the James Beard Award nomination. Probably 97% of ’em are white. And I hate to even do that. And it shouldn’t be that way, but I just want to throw it out because it should not be that way. Everything shouldn’t be political. It should be about raw talent. Cause if you go and eat somewhere, and if it’s good, that’s where you’re gonna go because it’s good.
And to be honest, I’ve told a lot of chefs that’s out there working 90 hours a week slaving on that line. and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s nothing wrong with that because I do it in a sense too. But what I do is I train my people and we go over things over and over. I work less hours. I’m a single father to a 10 year old as well. So what I do is I maintain a healthy life. I have a great team. I still maintain all my TV work and all, and no chef that you’ll see in the state of Mississippi will get paid more than me. And that’s not, I’m throwing that in nobody’s face, but I’m just saying it’s better ways to look at this.
And I’m trying to live beyond the stigma of my family that is capped out like at 63 years old. So honestly, if I looked at that tree, I got less than 20 years to live. I’m gonna break that stigma, but I’m also gonna put that voice out there to let the world know that everybody needs to be accepted. I don’t care if you’re from Mississippi or Ohio, it does not matter. If it’s good, it’s good. And if people love it, people love it. So that’s definitely my answer and it had a little bit of frustration in it, but you know what, I’m at peace with it now. More at peace.
Sam: Nick, I appreciate you taking time.
Nick: You’re welcome.
Topics Discussed: Training, Leadership, Restaurants, Hospitality, Stigmas, Habits
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